LAGUNA BEACH — A mysterious spill that residents say has poured from a storm drain into the ocean at a popular diving cove for at least four days sent city officials scrambling Monday to plug it and determine if it was sewage.
In the meantime, the Orange County Health Care Agency closed a three-quarter-mile stretch of beach from Aster Street at the south end of Heisler Park north to Fairview Street.
Residents and beach-goers were irked that while the unusual flow from a pipe at Fisherman's Cove was reported Friday night, no contaminated water signs were posted there or at adjacent coves until Monday.
Fisherman's Cove, also known as Boat Canyon Cove, was packed with swimmers and divers all weekend, they said.
"Lobster season just opened," said Marlene Davis, a visitor from Tempe, Ariz. "This place was loaded with lobster divers (Sunday). Loaded."
A county official said the health agency was not alerted to the problem until sometime before 8 a.m. Monday.
"It's hard to believe it took so long to get action," said Robert R. Mosier, who reported the flow. "Because the people were swimming all weekend, it scares me a little bit."
Initially on Monday, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said the flow originated from a clogged or broken underground sewer main that somehow had leaked into a storm drain. Later, however, Frank said that did not seem to be the case.
"We don't know what it is," he said.
Samples from the flow were forwarded to the South Coast Water District, which had determined by Monday night that it "could be sewage," city engineer Russ Cox said. "We're still not convinced" that it is, he said.
At 9:30 p.m,, half a dozen people were still a work at the site. They they had blocked the storm drain outfall and rerouted it with temporary pipelines to the Boat Canyon Pump Station about 100 feet away.
"We've intercepted almost all the sewage now so it's not going onto the beach anymore," Cox said.
The county is also testing samples.
Mosier's wife, Beverly, whose home overlooks the 72-inch storm drain, said she first noticed the unusual flow Thursday morning as she sat in her spa on a wooden deck.
"I don't know how long it was running before I noticed it," she said.
Robert Mosier, who is president of the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn., said he first thought someone might be emptying a swimming pool. When he noticed liquid still gushing from the drain late Friday night, Mosier called city police.
When it was not stopped Saturday, he called the Laguna Beach County Water District, Mosier said. A district official returned the call Sunday night and said the problem was "probably a sewer leak," Mosier said.
Water district officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
In response to the call Friday night, Frank said, a water district worker repaired a leaky fire hydrant at Monterey and Cliff drives overnight, thinking that was causing the problem.
"Nobody checked to see if there was still water coming out of the storm drain," Frank said.
On Saturday, Frank said, a water district worker responded to Mosier's second call and toured the area. About noon, Frank said, the district worker called a city sewer division employee, and the two apparently miscommunicated about how to respond to the problem.
Frank said the city worker thought the water district worker was going to call the city back if the flow continued. When the district employee did not call back, the city worker did not check the storm drain to see if it was still gushing, Frank said.
"At best, there might have been a little miscommunication between the parties," Frank said, adding that the city worker should have been more assertive about following up on the problem.
If the incident is a sewer spill as Frank first suspected, it would be particularly frustrating for Laguna Beach officials, as this environmentally conscious city has been plagued with such problems in recent years.
City officials have been so upset about repeated sewer spills in the Aliso Creek area at the south end of town that they held a multiagency meeting on the subject last month. A task force was formed to address the problem of urban runoff and sewage spills.